West Side Story: a Note From the Underground

 

Skyline High School put on a production of West Side Story on November 15, 16, 17, and 19. The musical was directed by Courtney Jensen, with Jay Gunderson working as the music director, Whitney Anfinsen as the choreographer, and Adam Larson as the conductor. Tony and Maria were played by Eric Lash and Kate Hales, respectively. Also included in the cast were Principal Doug Bingham, IB director Chris Kreuger, and business/CTE teacher Ken Kapptie. After spending months rehearsing alongside the cast and crew, I didn’t get to see the show even a single time. One of the pitfalls of being in the orchestra pit, I suppose

Playing percussion in the musical was a very unique experience for me. Leonard Bernstein arguably wrote the most complicated and challenging musical score to date when he composed the music for West Side Story. I spent hours listening to recordings, dividing up the percussion parts between the three players so everything got covered, practicing personally, and rehearsing with the cast. Never once did I get to sit back and watch the show, yet what I gained from being behind, or rather under, the scenes was just as significant and enjoyable as what the regular audience member did.

The orchestra pit is a fascinating world. If you were to peer into the “pit of despair” as Larson fondly calls it, you would see scores of students sitting on creaky chairs in the semi-dark. They are reading off of music on wobbly music stands illuminated by feeble clip-on lights whose bulbs like to die out now and then. The cords for these lights snake across the floor in a complicated, jumbled maze of extension cords and outlets that makes navigating the pit an often dangerous experience.

In the back, stage-right corner the horn and trumpet players have at least 25 water bottles lined up on the small ledge behind them (to make sure they stay hydrated and don’t bust their chops), and when they aren’t playing they are busily engaged with the grilled-cheese maker that they smuggled in for the first dress rehearsal, which will last long into the night.

In the middle, right up against the back wall, the solitary pianist is busy dividing his time between the old upright piano and the electric keyboard, placed at a right angle to the piano, that walls him in. Radiating out from the piano in a series of arcs are the saxophones, bassoon, oboes, clarinets, flutes, trombones, and string players, who sit shivering in their chairs while trying to warm their hands by the light bulbs on their stand lights (the school boiler isn’t working or someone hasn’t bothered to turn it on).

The three bass players are clustered up front in the stage-left corner; all three are reading off a single stand, and they often take turns while the others continue playing to make tacos from the ingredients that they, too, smuggled in. When they aren’t focused on the music or the food they amusedly stare at us, the percussionists.

An entire quarter of the orchestra pit is full of percussion instruments: drum kit, toms, timpani, chimes, xylophone, vibraphone, glockenspiel, gong, snare drum, timbales, bongos, suspended cymbal, and a trap table that has instruments lying on it that range from the ratchet to the shakere, finger cymbals, tambourine, and more. We run from instrument to instrument in steps just as choreographed as the dances that happen on stage, sometimes even playing two instruments at a time.

During rests or in between songs we dance along to the music or mouth the characters’ lines and act out what we think the actors might be doing. In fact, listening to the action onstage and imagining everything that is going on is one of the best parts.

I am literally trapped under the stage, and, except for rare moments when I crane my neck out over the xylophone, I cannot see anything going on. But, I can hear everything. I can hear my fellow students, teachers, and principal try their hand at New York and Puerto Rican accents. I can hear the emotion in their voices and become more connected to the story than I could be if I simply watched it. I can imagine the dancing, the costumes, the lights, and the actors in a way that is more exciting than it could ever be in reality. And I can hear the music.

It is magical in the orchestra pit – tacos, grilled cheeses, and freezing temperatures included. Yes, there are countless hours of rehearsals and practice, you might have the occasional break-down when a performance or dress rehearsal just ended late at night and you still have a ton of homework, and your parents could complain when they are sick of hearing you listen to recordings over and over again. These moments, however, redeem themselves as you are sitting in the dark, listening and visualizing that amazing something you helped to create.

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